Jupiter, the 5th planet from the Sun — the most voluminous and massive planet in the solar system — is named after the Ancient Roman god of the sky and thunder. And boy would that deity have enjoyed the show that occurred on his namesake on March 17th, when an asteroid (or a comet, it’s uncertain), slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere and exploded in a fleeting, yet brilliant flash of light.
Although collision events like these, large enough to be seen from Earth, are not uncommon, it’s still stunning to watch this kind of cosmic drama unfold in unaltered videos, like the one above, and the two below.
The collision was first spotted by amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer in Mödling, Austria, who was recording video of Jupiter using his 20-cm telescope. It was then verified by John McKeon who was in Swords, just north of Dublin, Ireland, who captured the same event with his camera and 28-cm telescope.
Although it’s uncertain if what hit Jupiter was either an asteroid or a comet—that is, if it was either made up of mostly metals and rocky material, or mostly ice, dust, and rocky material—it definitely slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere with an incredible amount of force. (Note that it slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere, because even atmospheric pressure can behave like a solid wall for very high-velocity objects.)
As Slate‘s resident astronomer Phil Plait points out, the amount of energy released on impact is thanks to Jupiter’s mass and the velocity of the comet/asteroid. He notes that while the space rock was likely only tens of meters in diameter, thanks to Jupiter’s “ferocious gravity” (Jupiter has about 317 times the mass of Earth), it probably hit the giant planet with energy equivalent to 12,500,000 tons of TNT. On Earth, the impact would’ve only had 1/25th that energy.
Plait notes that this is the case because while “the energy released by an object slamming into another depends linearly on the mass (double the mass, double the energy),” it relies on the square of the velocity. This means that because objects that hit Jupiter are going roughly five times faster than they would if they hit Earth, they’ll release 25 times the energy. And that’s wondrous and exciting and dazzling and all that, as long as it happens on Jupiter, while we watch from our quiet little planet hundreds of millions of kilometers away.
What do you think about this asteroid/comet impact on Jupiter? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!